A study of the benthic invertebrate community inhabiting a small, foothill trout stream in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho was conducted over a two-year period. Monthly Hess samples and short-term experiments using substratum-filled trays were used to describe the spatial dispersion of the benthos and to examine the response of invertebrate populations to substratum and current. A method was devised for measuring available surface area which involved coating individual stones with latex and measuring the area of the ‘print’ resulting from inking the impression left on the latex mold.
The dispersion of all populations was clumped throughout the year. Alteration of the cross-sectional pattern of current velocity and stream bed composition changed the pattern of distribution but not the extent of clumping. Collections made in areas of depositing and eroding substrata revealed a more diverse fauna in the latter. Most groups of organisms found in the riffle were scarcer in the pools or absent from them. The pool fauna contained no important additions over those found in the riffles.
After a year's study of invertebrate populations in an otherwise undisturbed riffle, the substratum was altered and the flow made more uniform; an increase in the abundance of most of the benthic invertebrates followed. No single factor was responsible for the increase, but the change in substratum size and degree of compaction accounted for most of the change. Interpretation of the results was aided by findings from experiments using substratum-filled trays.
Two series of stream experiments using the trays were conducted: one to test the relative importance of current and substratum and the other to test the effect of particle size on the distribution of the benthic fauna. In the first series, placement of trays of stones in a pool resulted in an increase in numbers of some but not all of the invertebrates over numbers usually occurring in the pool. Trays filled with stones and placed in a riffle supported fewer animals than found on the adjacent stream bed but more than in the pool. Variations are attributed to differences in current velocity and amounts of imported organic and inorganic debris. Three different relationships of population numbers to current velocity were found for different members of the community (direct, indirect, and parabolic) over the range of 10 to 60 cm/sec. The second series of experiments consisted of two sets of trays filled with stones of medium or large pebbles, respectively. Nine taxa, as well as all of the combined taxa, showed a preference for trays of small stones over the natural stream bed. A few taxa were noticeably more abundant on the small substratum than on the large but most of the fauna showed only slight increases in numbers or remained constant on the two substrata. Only three taxa showed a direct relation of numbers to total surface area presented by the stones.
Number and kinds of organisms found in trays filled with a uniform size of substratum did not correspond to those taken in Hess samples from the natural stream bed. This has important implications in terms of currently recommended pollution monitoring techniques. However, it is suggested that if the substratum composition of the trays more nearly matched that of the stream, the correspondence would be much better. The results of the present study also throw considerable doubt on the adequacy of generalizations derived from earlier studies of responses to substratum size and suggest several reasons for reevaluating current ideas regarding the influence of substratum on invertebrate distribution.